Monday, July 16, 2018

"A Saint on My Back!"

After his near-death experience, Padre Pio bilocated to hear his confession.  Cecil Humphrey-Smith then became the saint's close friend.

In the fall of 1955, Cecil Humphrey-Smith, an Englishman and a convert to the Catholic Church, was a quality-control representative for the H. J. Heinz Company. He was sent to Italy, and was responsible for the tomato fields in the Po Valley. It was his job to determine whether the crops met Heinz' strict standards, and his approval was needed before any fruit or concentrate could be sent to England. That summer, it was hot, with rain and hail, causing lots of problems with the crops. When a farmer notified Heinz that his crop was ready, it had to be inspected immediately for a decision on its acceptability.

With many of his colleagues away, Cecil had to cover a large area of the Valley himself, and on the night of September 24, he returned to his hotel extremely tired after working long days with very little sleep. But then a call came in from a farmer who insisted on having his crop inspected immediately before the rains began again. Reluctantly, he climbed into his car and began a long journey on country roads that been neglected in the ten years since the war had ended. Unfortunately, the rain had resumed and he was forced to reject the crop, to the great dismay of the farmer and his crying wife. He felt very sorry for them, but there was nothing he could do since the unrelenting rain had caused cracks to appear in the tomatoes, with fungus soon to follow, and they would have been rejected if sent ahead.

Driving back late at night and desperate for some much needed sleep, all he wanted to do now was get back to his hotel room. It was then that he had the accident. As he was driving, he dozed off momentarily, and when he suddenly woke up, he accidentally hit the accelerator. As the car shot forward, he saw the headlight of a motorcycle coming towards him; swerving in order to avoid it, he smashed into a bridge, splitting his car in two.

According to Cecil, “At that moment I had what is now termed an 'out-of-body' experience.” The fuel tank had landed about 15 feet from the main wreckage, and Cecil, looking down upon the scene, could see his body lying alongside the tank. It was night, on a rural road, in a region where automobiles were few. Eventually a car came along, but it just kept going. The same happened with the next. Finally, a third car approached - by that time Cecil was having a near-death experience, where he entered a long tunnel and was drawn towards a heavenly light. “I knew everything would be all right when I reached that light.”

But when the third car passed by, and then stopped and came back, Cecil seemed to find himself back in his body. He heard two men and a woman debate what they should do, finally deciding to drive him themselves to the nearest hospital. As they picked him up, he drifted out of his body again, and saw himself in the back seat of the car, his head resting on a newspaper on the woman's lap. He could see the car all the way to the hospital, “It was if I were traveling just behind and way above it, all the way, going faster and faster.”

At the hospital in Piacenza, he became aware that he was being wheeled on a patient trolley along a corridor. He could feel a doctor checking his head and body, and then a sheet was pulled up over his head, and the trolley was pushed into a room. He had no idea how much time had elapsed before he woke up in a hospital bed, after it was discovered he was still alive. His skull was cracked, he had a broken shoulder and collar bone, a cracked vertebra, and ribs, elbow, knee and ankle were broken or badly bruised. “I was in rather a mess.”

Booklet by Cecil Humphrey-Smith

While he was lying in bed, the door opened and a bearded Franciscan friar entered. He sat down beside Cecil and proceeded to help him, or rather forced him, to make a good confession. “He was pretty brutal at times.” When Cecil could not remember something, the priest would tell him what it was, reminding him of such and such a sin in his life. The confession went on and on, and Cecil had to admit that the friar seemed to know things better than he did. No stone was left unturned, his life was thoroughly scoured. “I think subconsciously I was getting a bit cheesed off at the insistence of this priest confessing me.” Before he left, the friar administered the last rites to Cecil, consisting of absolution, holy oils, and Holy Communion. Cecil closed his eyes and felt at peace; what he remembered most about this encounter was the priest's most beautiful smile.
The next morning, his close friend and work colleague the Marchese Bernardo Patrizi came by with a local parish priest, who administered Communion again. In the days that followed, Bernardo arranged to have Cecil transferred to a specialized clinic for a time, and from there Bernardo took him to his own palace and estate near Monza. There he was cared for by Patrizi's two daughters, and also by a friend of the family, a princess who was a daughter of Umberto, the last King of Italy.

Eventually he was deemed well enough to return to work with the Heinz corporation. But he before long he began to have dizzy spells, and would fall asleep at strange times. He started blacking out and had many falls. The worst problems, however, were the excruciating pains in his head, “a pain like a thousand dentist's drills hitting the nerves.” Sometimes he would literally bang his head against the wall, smashing up furniture in the process. He was sent to a hospital in London for treatment, which consisted of a few dozen different pills a day. At the hospital he even underwent hypnosis, on the theory that he had subconscious guilt for possibly having killed someone in the auto accident. His statement about the accident under hypnosis was recorded, but he was speaking in Italian! When translated, it turned out to be the same as his original statement.

After further hospitals and years of medical treatments, his old associate Bernardo Patrizi thought it was ridiculous that he should still be suffering, even seven years after the accident. Bernardo asked Cecil to come with him on a journey to meet one of his close friends. Bernardo did not tell him anything about where they were going, but spoke instead about every other possible topic. The trip ended with a harrowing ride up a twisted mountain-side road in the dark. Cecil was in intense pain all the way. Finally they checked into a small hotel called Santa Maria della Grazie, and went straight to bed. They had reached the town of San Giovanni Rotondo, situated upon the Gargano Mountain.

Very early that morning, Bernardo woke him up and said they were going to Mass. It was snowing and bitterly cold as they trudged up to the church. Although it was still dark out, there was an incredible crowd waiting for the church to open. The doors were finally unbolted, “and then what I can only describe as a 'whoosh' as the crowd surged through and literally ran to fill up the front seats.” In his English reserve, Cecil stood aside to let them pass, and as a result he ended up sitting alone near the back of the church. Then an old priest came out to say Mass.

Time seemed to disappear. “From then on all I can say is that I seemed to witness a complete sharing in the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ. I was transported to the foot of Calvary.” Cecil seemed to be in a state of stupor when the Mass ended. Then he realized that Bernardo had found him, and was pulling him towards the sacristy. They entered the room along with a large group of people. He told Bernardo that this was the priest that had confessed him and brought him Communion just after the crash. At one end of the sacristy was a kneeler, where the old priest was making his thanksgiving after Mass. Then he arose and began walking to greet everyone in turn. Cecil was experiencing his usual intense pain, and was disturbed by his recognition of the priest, who warmly embraced Bernardo. He wondered what Bernardo's relationship with him was.

Bernardo asked Cecil to kneel down, and he said to the priest that this was the Englishman he had told him about. Cecil knelt, and the old priest in a somewhat gruff voice said “Eh Be. Be,” while tapping three times on the right side of Cecil's head. “The pain left me immediately.” The priest continued walking down the line without looking back. Then he turned to give a final blessing to everyone, and Cecil was transfixed by his eyes. He tearfully rose to his feet, basking in a state of great joy.

In all the years he had known Bernardo, never once had he mentioned that he knew Padre Pio, although he was his spiritual child and close friend. As they left the church and went back down the hill to their hotel, Bernardo began to relate to Cecil about his association with him, and how he was appointed treasurer of his charitable works. While they were at breakfast, one of the friars came dashing in, saying that Padre Pio wanted to see them in his room. They returned to the friary and “chatted” with the saint in his cell. That evening they met with him again in a large drawing room, along with some of the doctors and collaborators of his hospital, La Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza.

As the people arrived, they would kneel to greet Padre Pio, and kiss his hand. Cecil, with his usual English reserve, bent over and, perhaps because he reminded him of his old grandfather. kissed the Padre on his forehead! Padre Pio took his face in his hands, saying “Bravo, Inglese, Bravo,” while patting his cheeks. From then on he always called Cecil “L'Inglese,” the Englishman.

They attended these meetings for the next four or five days, and they became engraved in Cecil's memory. As people reported their progress on the Padre's charitable works, there was an atmosphere of warmth and relaxation. With so much being discussed, they seemed to last two or three hours, while in reality they were over in less than half an hour. Padre Pio seemed to have the ability to make time stand still, and to speak to several people at once. He was often joking, yet during the meeting he prayed continuously, his hands constantly turning on the rosary beads. When he would address Cecil, it was as if no one else was there. He seemed to live in a different time, almost beyond time. “I truly believe he had extraordinary abilities, could do many things at one time, and already lived partly outside time.”

After the meetings, Padre Pio would participate in night prayers with the community in their internal chapel. The traditional ending of the night prayers was an anthem to the Blessed Mother, the Salve Regina. He always shed tears during this prayer, weeping so copiously that he usually moved the rest of the community to tears as well. He never passed by an image of her without offering a greeting to his Heavenly Mother. While the Vatican Council was in session, someone once asked him if we would ever see women priests. Padre Pio turned on the person quick as a flash, with fire in his eyes. “Would you insult the Mother of God?”

Cecil wrote of these experiences, and much more, in an out-of-print booklet, A Saint on My Back. This article is based on a chapter in Jim Gallagher's book Padre Pio the Pierced Priest, and on an Internet site. These sources most likely relied on Cecil's booklet.

View my writings on Padre Pio and others Here

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